I think it’s fair to say that when most people
think of Jester Hairston today they usually think of his role as Rolly Forbes, the
funny, sharp tongued old man on the NBC
sitcom Amen with Sherman Hensley, back during the late 80’s to early 90’s.
But Hairston, who passed away in 2000 at the remarkable
age of 99, led a much more interesting and complex life. Not only was he an
actor, starting his film career back in 1936
with hundreds of movies and TV performances, including Amos and Andy, In the Heat
of the Night and dozens of musical shorts made during the 40’s and 50’s, Hairston was perhaps more well known as a composer (with some over 300 gospel songs to
his credit), conductor, arranger and singer.
Born during the height of Jim Crow segregation in North Carolina in 1901, he graduated from high school in Pennsylvania in 1919, and from Tufts University with additional graduate work at Juilliard
and the University of the Pacific.
He directed the Federal
Theatre Project, and was assistant conductor of the legendary Hall Johnson Choir for fifteen years, and trained choirs for radio, Broadway
musicals and movies. He also conducted
film background music, toured the world for the State Department during the 1960’s, and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1992.
And now a documentary is currently in the works about Hairston
to be called Amen – The Life and Work of
Jester Hairston, which is being developed by The African Diaspora Sacred
Music and Musician Program of California
State University Dominguez Hills.
The film is being directed by Dr. Hansonia Caldwell, professor emeritus of Music and Africana Studies at California State University, and documentary
filmmaker and editor Lillian Benson.
As the filmmakers themselves say about their film, Hairston’s
story “is one that is filled with triumphant highs and disparaging lows. But
his journey has led him to far away lands, transcending stereotypes and
blazing the trail for others who dare to follow.”
The work has been in production for the past two years
and there’s a website where you can learn more about Hariston and the film
project, as well as donate money. Check it out HERE.
Here’s a video of Jester Hairston conducting what is,
perhaps, his best known composition: